Of the respondents to Prepared Foods’ “2007 Foodservice Product Development Trend Survey,” 13.5% regard ethnic cuisine as one of the top five most important traits to their foodservice customers. However, the notion of “ethnic cuisine” is a diverse idea, as evidenced by the range of responses when asked which ethnic foodservice products their company currently offers. The almost mainstream cuisines of Mexican, Italian and Chinese foods were all found at the top, along with kosher, which finished just ahead of Chinese. In fact, 11 different ethnic cuisines were offered by at least 10% of respondents.

Furthermore, respondents expect continued R&D efforts in these areas. Of those who are offering Mexican products, 97% expect their product development efforts to stay the same or increase over the next two years. Roughly 95% of those offering Italian items will stay the course or increase development efforts, and all 100% of respondents developing Chinese products will maintain or increase their product development efforts.

According to Mintel Menu Insights, Indian cuisine has increased its appearance on menus. Of the 575 restaurants tracked by Menu Insights, there were 29 Indian items in the fourth quarter of 2006, more than double the amount of less than two years prior. Some 13.4% of respondents to Prepared Foods’ survey currently offer Indian foodservice products, and 96% of them expect to maintain or increase their development efforts in the area. In fact, of the respondents in the Prepared Foods survey, less than 2% of those developing ethnic foodservice products anticipate decreasing those efforts over the next two years.

Thai, Vietnamese, Cuban, Moroccan and Greek are just a sampling of the cuisines emerging in quick-service restaurants, notes Menu Insights, and such diverse flavors are having an impact on American consumers’ tastes and preferences.

“The popularity of ethnic cuisine will eventually distort what we think of as ‘traditional American’ flavors,” said Maria Caranfa, director of Mintel Menu Insights. “We have already seen Asian and Italian flavors—such as sesame and ginger, and sun-dried tomato and basil—that were once considered ethnic become mainstream flavors in American diets.”

Outside Influence

Whether due to increased travel and awareness of other cuisines and their flavors, a loss of tasting ability amid an aging populace or even the influence of the Food Network, American palates are taking a liking to more flavorful ethnic foods. Staying ahead of those desires has proven to be a challenge. The Cheesecake Factory, for instance, updates its menu every six months with ideas and items from 50 to 60 different countries.

The moves have not been entirely from more high-end restaurants. O’Charley’s, a casual dining chain, has added ethnic products and more upscale-appearing items to “differentiate us from our competitors,” explains Jeff Warne, the chain’s concept president. “Casual dining had walked into this sea of sameness. The offerings were the same; even the buildings looked alike. We were trying to give guests a reason to come to us.”

In a similar process, restaurants have added such fare as Thai Chicken entrées and Caribbean Coconut Shrimp to appetizer menus. In fact, it is appetizer menus where the most significant ethnic developments have concentrated, particularly Asian influences, as evidenced by the number of pot sticker and egg roll options available. Outback Steakhouse, for example, now features another Asian-influenced appetizer: it terms its yellow fin tuna as “sashimi style.”

Furthermore, consumer desire for ethnic foods shows no signs of abating. Market research firm Promar International forecasts the ethnic foods market will grow 50% over the next decade, with mainstream consumers expected to buy 75% of those products over that time. Suppliers are trying to help spur the creation of new ethnic items to meet those desires.

One supplier, for instance, has recipe booklets based on different ethnic cuisines. Geared toward fine dining, Asian Inspirations offers tips on Indian, Thai and Vietnamese flavors. Mark Hill, corporate chef with the company, notes, “[Consumers] are looking for bolder flavors and like Latin, Thai, Indian and Vietnamese because of the flavors. Restaurants can take advantage of the flavor profiles and combine them with more mainstream menu items.” The same can be said for the company’s Flavors of the Latin Table, which features advice on flavors from such countries as Argentina, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Mexico. “Latin food is the most popular right now,” he notes. “The smoky-hot flavors of chipotle, along with fresh chilies [Anaheim, poblano, habanero, pasillas], are in high demand.”

Moving In

As can be seen in the chart “Healthy Moves,” respondents to this year’s Prepared Foods’ “Foodservice Product Development Trend Survey” are aware of the growing awareness of health in the restaurant arena. While these issues are not the areas that are most important (see chart “Willing to Serve”), a significant portion of respondents are seeing customers in need of products with less sodium (12.2%), fat (11.5%) and calories (8.3%).

However, these issues would not appear to be where sales are expected to grow, a notion likewise apparent in Technomic Information Services’ recently released “Menu Monitor Trending Report 2006.” In the first half of 2006, all restaurant segments reported negative percentages of new “healthy” items. The top 250 chains had 439 healthy menu items between January and June; between July and December, these items numbered only 405, an 8% decline. Among emerging chains, the number fell from 156 to 148, a 5% drop. The most severe decline was found in “Top Independents,” which fell 14% and added only one new healthy positioned item in the last six months of the year. Overall, Technomic found 7% fewer new healthy menu meal parts in the latter half of 2006.

Though not matching the rate of the early part of the year, late 2006 did see 47 healthy introductions, with salads, wraps and sandwiches featuring grilled proteins being the most added “healthy” new items. Grilled chicken led that protein pack, and the top 250 operators (in particular) were augmenting their healthy items with grilled steak, fish and shrimp in lighter entrées such as salads and wraps.

 Respondents to PF’s survey may sway their opinion more toward healthier products if recent headlines about nutrition and restaurants are accurate. The American Medical Association (AMA), for instance, has asked fast food and chain restaurants to post nutritional information on menus and menu boards. “One of the key things to address in the obesity epidemic is that people know what they are eating,” explains Ronald Davis, M.D., AMA president. “We would like voluntary action now, but we will also be calling for policies…at the local, state and national levels to require chains to do this.”

The group wants the menu information to be easy to understand and to note calorie, fat, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium content. On menu boards where space is limited, Davis said the AMA would allow for only including caloric content in addition to price.

Technomic’s NUTRITRACK study of 2,500 Americans found a strong majority in favor of new regulations requiring restaurants to disclose nutrition information. Nearly three quarters of them (74%) support regulations forcing restaurants to provide a section on all menus or menu boards that contains complete nutritional information for all items served. Some 71% are in favor of Davis’ proposal of posting caloric content next to the menu price.

“Consumers clearly want to know more about what they are getting when they purchase meals at restaurants,” said Chris Malone, lead researcher on the study. “American interest in health and nutrition is growing each year, and consumers now expect the kind of readily available and complete nutritional information when ordering restaurant meals that they are accustomed to for packaged food purchases.”

The calorie amounts might be surprising to consumers. October’s Journal of Consumer Research notes a study finding people underestimate the number of calories in fast food items that they consider relatively healthy. Misled by the healthy perception of the items they are eating, these consumers often “treat” themselves to cookies, soda or other extras and push their calorie intake even higher, says the study.

It compared calorie expectations of consumers eating at Subway (known for promoting the healthiness of certain menu items) and McDonald’s. Consumers eating a sandwich, soft drink and a side order were asked how many calories they thought the meal contained. Each meal actually had the same calorie amount, but consumers underestimated the Subway meal by about 21%, or 151 calories.

According to the recently released Zagat survey of fast food chains (its first ratings of that market), 93% of the 5,535 respondents say they are concerned about the nutritional content of fast food. Those concerns, however, do not impede consumers from dining at fast food chains: they still eat at those establishments an average of 12 times a month.

Restaurants have responded to the consumer desire for more nutritious fare in a number of ways. T.G.I. Friday’s “Right Portion, Right Price” menu features 10 entrées sold in portions that are about 30% smaller and priced about a third less than regular versions. Subway’s Fresh Fit meal, the company’s biggest campaign in 2007, substitutes apples or raisins for chips and 1% milk or water for soft drinks with a sub. In test marketing, it boosted same-store sales almost 8%. Krispy Kreme also made waves earlier in the year with the announcement of a whole-wheat, caramel-glazed doughnut; the 180-calorie total numbered 20 fewer than the regular variety.

While Technomic’s “Menu Monitor” report found a decline in new healthy items, it did note a substantial number of healthy menu deletions—81. “During January-June 2006,” the report notes, “operators overwhelmingly deleted ‘low-carb’ menu items. These deletions continued in the second half of the year, as operators removed items that emphasized lower carbohydrates in favor of entrées, sides and baked goods that promoted ‘reduced-fat,’ ‘low-fat’ or ‘fat-free’ nutritional values.” In PF’s survey, “low-carb” is now included in the “specialty health” response option, which garnered a respectably strong 11.5% of respondents; it ranks among the top five most important product traits to their foodservice customers. Healthy foodservice items may soon be mandated, but at least developers are ahead of the curve and are prepared to take these issues into account when creating new items.